A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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What is the actual value of stretch goals?

Lowell Kempf
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Magpie Games just finished up a Kickstarter for a licensed RPG about Avatar. (The Last Airbender/Kegend of Korea, not the ‘let’s see how many ideas we can steal from Poul Anderson’ one) As I understand it, they had a $50,000 goal and raised over nine million dollars. Is that a record? I can’t keep track of Kickstarter anymore.

A good friend commented on how tempting the Kickstarter was with all of the stretch goals. Even though he has never watched any version of the show, doesn’t really have much interest in it and doesn’t see himself running the game.

Which led to two us commenting that the extra value of stretch goals only has actual value if you’re actually ever going to use them.

The older and more cynical I get, the more I feel very cautious about stretch goals. All too often, I don’t even get a game on the table more than couple times, let alone enough to make any use of extra stuff. The Fear Of Missing Out that stretch goals creates is often a reality of missing nothing.

To be fair, there have been stretch goals that have turned out to have had value for me. For instance, the stretch goals for the Pack O Games Kickstarters were additional complete games. Which I did play and got value from.

Still, if stretch goals are the deciding factor for me, I probably shouldn’t back the Kickstarter.
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Wed Sep 8, 2021 6:52 pm
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Agricola is all about labor!

Lowell Kempf
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When thinking about what game to retire about for Labor Day, I thought about Agricola since it’s all about doing manual labor!

Agricola came out fourteen years ago… OH MY SWEET CATAN, I’M OLD! And that’s when Uwe Rosenberg stopped being the Bohnanza guy (a game I still totally love) and being a designer of games that cover medium-sized tables.

It’s been a while since I’ve played Agricola but that’s entirely due to time and opportunity and table space. I’d happily play it again. And from what I can tell, it may have had some revisions but it’s never gone out of print. But what is it that makes Agricola so nifty?

It uses a solid worker placement system. The different decks of cards give it vast variety and replay value. Later editions had adorable animal meeples. The game is a delightful work of game mechanics.

But I think an additional element helped Agricola go off like a bomb and has helped its long term success. It’s really easy to understand. Which is a more fun way of saying it’s accessible. Everything you do in the game makes sense. You are doing basic agricultural chores.

When I was more of a gamer snob, I used to have a meh opinion of theme and fluff. I thought it was just a way for Fantasy Flight to justify charging a lot for a bunch of plastic. But I now realize that these things can help you wrap your brain around a game and allow it to be more intricate. Agricola could theoretically be rendered as a total abstract but it would be not only less fun but also harder to understand.

Agricola. Maybe not my favorite Uwe Rosenberg game. Maybe not yours. But it is a good one. And you make your farm family labor. So it’s thematic for the holiday.

And happy Labor Day!
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Mon Sep 6, 2021 2:41 pm
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Limes tales Cities and makes it better

Lowell Kempf
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Limes might seem like Martyn F did a mashup of Take It Easy and Carcassonne. Which isn’t actually the case. It’s a refinement of his earlier mashup of Take It Easy and Carcassonne, Cities.

Short version: you are creating a four-by-four grid of tiles, creating a map. You are also playing meeples down to score specific parts of the map, Carcassonne-style.

Incidentally, the word Limes isn’t being used as a the citrus fruit but the Roman term for borders and border defenses along what would become Germany. So you are building a map of part of the Roman Empire and I got to learn a new definition of Limes.

So, everyone has an identical set of 24 numbered tiles, along with seven meeples. Someone randomly draws a tile and everyone places that tile. It will all seem familiar if you’ve ever played Take It Easy… or Karuba… or Criss Cross… or Rolling Realms. Wow, this has become a really common mechanic. You are forming a four-by-four grid so you won’t use all the tiles and you will end up defining the dimensions of the grid as the game goes on.

You can also either place a meeple on the tile you just placed OR move a previously placed meeple to an adjacent geographic feature.

The tiles are divided in four areas. They can be water, forest, city or watch tower. And all of them except for watch towers are doubled up on some tiles. And, Carcassonne-style, meeples score points in different ways depending on what they are are standing on.

Most points wins. Unless you’re playing solitaire. In that case, just try to do really well.

Okay. I really enjoy playing Limes. You have to be in the mood for a Take It Easy-style game and it is definitely a light game. But if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a good choice.

Cities, back in 2008, was a big deal for me. Along with Wurfel Bingo, it was one of the first Take It Easy-style games I tried that wasn’t Take It Easy. And I still quite like it. But Limes is an improvement. You can score using all four types of terrain and each scoring method is distinct.

Now, I have only played Limes online (https://ori.avtalion.name/limes/) The one downside to the physical version is only has enough components for two players. At one point, I had three copies of Cities so I could play up to twelve people.

I had wanted to try Limes for years and it turned out to be well worth playing.
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Mon Aug 30, 2021 10:14 pm
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Choose Your Own Adventure as a deck of cards

Lowell Kempf
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A few months ago, I printed out and constructed the demo version of Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger. I have many fond memories of the line of books from back in the 80s. I was curious and isn’t the point of a demo to give you an idea how a game works?

Just to get this out of the way. I am not going to discuss the actual story at all. There will be no spoilers as far as that is concerned. This will just be about mechanics.

And as far as mechanics go, the Choose Your Own Adventure card game is just what it says on the tin. It is a game book broken down into cards. Noting more and nothing less.

The game consists of a story deck, a clue deck and a board to track the danger meter and the psychic scale. The story cards are the story text and basic decisions. You earn clue cards by skill checks against the current danger level or being high enough level on the psychic scale. The clue cards can be items, additional choices or actual clues.

While dice-based skill checks are new to CYOA as a series, they are the standard for most game book series (Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, etc) so no points for innovation there. However, I do really like clue cards. They are a very convenient way of keeping track of inventory and they are an excellent way of implementing hidden choices. They are my favorite mechanical element of the game.

To be perfectly honest, the Choose Your Own Adventure card game absolutely fulfills its design mission statement. It absolutely captures the feel and the mechanics of the original books.

But, at the same time, I can’t say that I have any plans to buy the full game. There are two reasons for this and they are both completely baked in to the intrinsic design of the game.

First and by far most importantly, there isn’t a lot of replay value in the game. You go through the story and then you were done. Heck, there are even rules for going back if you get yourself killed before the end so you will make it through the story. (Which also captures the feel of the original books where you could just flip back to the page where are you made the bad decision.) I don’t mind limited replay value in a print and play game but it’s some thing I want to avoid if I’m actually buying a game.

Second, I don’t see it really functioning as a cooperative game. There isn’t a real functional reason to take turns. It is fundamentally a solitaire game, literally like reading a book. That is much less of a dealbreaker but I do prefer to make my actual purchases multi-player.

I think the game does a very good job of doing just what it set out to do. Yes, it is a simple system but that is what is needed in order to capture the feel of the original series. And I did have fun with the demo. However, it is not something that I am in the market for.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jul 17, 2021 12:12 am
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Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation rocks

Lowell Kempf
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While I got rid of Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings (the cooperative one) and haven’t missed it, I have kept his Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation and can’t see myself ever getting rid of it.

I have never enjoyed Stratego. That’s on me, not Stratego. I just don’t have the patience for it. The play is too drawn out and meticulous for me. And I like Go and Chess!

But I really like LotR-Confrontation and Alex Randolph’s Geisters. Apparently, I need a smaller board! And, while I have played a _lot_ more Geister, I think LotR-Confrontation is the stronger game.

The basic concept of the game is that the light player is trying to get Frodo and the One Ring to Mount Doom and the dark player is trying to catch Frodo. So, it’s the FedEx delivery from Hell.

And, yes, it uses the Stratego mechanic that you can see what your pieces are but your opponent can’t. Shhhhh… It’s a secret.

So why does it rock?

First of all, the board is ridiculously tight. At the start of the game, every part of the board except the middle row is packed. The conflict and the mind games get going right from the start. The older I get, the more significant I think this is. The game cuts straight to the knife fight in a phone booth and that’s where the fun is.

Second, every single piece has a special power and it’s a different special power for each piece. The way that they interact is a huge part of the mind game’s that define the game.

Third, it’s a great example of asymmetrical conflict. Not only do the two sides have different goals, they have different strengths that compliment different styles. The light is a scalpel to the dark’s hammer. Doing well with one side doesn’t mean you can do the same with the other.

In short, there isn’t just one good design choice in LotR-Confrontation. There are bunch of them.

I commented that one of the reasons I got rid of Knizia’s cooperative LotR game that it abstracted things to the point where it wasn’t fun and was hard to follow. Confrontation can be accused of being pretty abstract but, mechanically, it all fits together super well. The game mechanics make sense. (Okay, I also think the design choices fit thematically but I can see how someone can argue with me about that)

I don’t actually have the deluxe version of the game, just the original one. And I’m nowhere near playing it out to the point where I’d need another set of characters. (I’m hoping someone has made a conversion kit since I like the compact size of the original game if I reach that point)

I am a big fan of River Knizia and many of his best games are built around a single, solid concept. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, though, is built around a bunch of them.


Originally posted at www.gnomeponderimg.com
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Wed Jul 14, 2021 9:22 pm
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Why I got rid of Knizia’s Lord of the Rings

Lowell Kempf
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Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings was my introduction to the cooperative genre. I know that the genre actually dates back to at least the 1940s. While many older examples are children’s games, the original Arkham Horror is still thirteen years older than LotR. Still, at the time when I found Lord of the Rings, cooperatives were very much the exception to the rule. It’s been almost ten years since I culled it from my collection.

And, looking back… yeah, no regrets.

Back when I was trying to get it on the table, a friend described it as less of a game and more like a ritual that we had all gotten together to perform. And I think that’s both an amusing and appropriate description.

Knizia’s LotR is a tough game to beat but that’s not its problem. In fact, that’s its biggest selling point. (Although cooperative games having become more common makes losing to them easier for folks to accept) And it is physically cumbersome with multiple boards and pawns and decks of cards and such but that’s honestly not a big deal unless you are playing on a TV tray.

No, what really killed the game for me and for literally everyone I played with is that it abstracted the Lord of the Rings to the point where we couldn’t see the story and it felt aggressively non-intuitive. In fact, if I were to play it again now, I’d probably like it even less.

We only beat the game once. And that was by abusing the power of the One Ring as much as possible. Which feels kind of against the spirit of the game. (It was a race between finishing the game and corruption finishing us) Afterwards, one player said ‘Okay, we never have to play that again’ and he turned out to be right.

I did get two of the expansions but never had the interest to actually try and use them. Getting the game out of my collection didn’t give me any regrets. Maybe even some relief and definitely some shelf space.

It is a fascinating, maybe even brilliant design. But that didn’t make it enjoyable.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 9, 2021 4:24 pm
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Hanabi - because I felt like writing about fireworks

Lowell Kempf
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It’s cheesy but I’ve decided that the Fourth of July would be a fun time to think about a game about fireworks. In this case, Hanabi. Which i think is actually about New Years but close enough

It’s actually been a while since I last played Hanabi but, for a while, it was in regular rotation as a two-player game for us. My sweet wife even made me a Hanabi-themed birthday cake one year. Hanabi won the Spiele de Jahres in 2013. And, from what I can tell, it’s remained in print and popular. So it’s doing well.

While the game is themed around fireworks, Hanabi is really about sorting cards into suites and rank order. As someone who has played a lot of different solitaire games over the last few years, I am amused at how many games have sorting cards as their base concept.

Really, just like folks used to say you could play a four-suited Lost Cities with a regular deck of cards, you could do a hack of Hanabi with a regular deck of cards and some sort of tokens. It wouldn’t be as pretty, though, which would make it less fun for a lot of people, including me.

As most of my readers know, Hanabi is a cooperative game. The clever bit is that you hold the cards backwards so you can’t see the faces but everyone else can. You can play a card, discard a card or give a hint on your turn. But there’s a limited number of hints in the game and, when they’re done, they are done.

The whole backward card thing is incredibly simple but it’s also incredible effective and clever.

Here’s the thing. By 2013, cooperative games had already gotten plenty of traction. (And I’m old enough to remember when Knizia’s Lord of the Rings was a bizarre oddity, even though it didn’t invent the genre. No by a long shot) At that time, folks had started complaining about Alpha Dog syndrome, when one player takes over and tells everyone else what to do. Hanabi made sure that that couldn’t happen. (And I have seen other games like SHH that have followed its example)

But, really, Hanabi stands on its own virtues, as opposed to in comparison. The game is intuitive in its play but it’s still tough to get a perfect play. It has a focus on communication and logic that will work for a lot of audiences, including non-gamers.

And I’ve just learned that, if the possibility of body language giving too much away, you can play online where limited communication is strictly enforced.

Hanabi. It’s a great game for the entire year.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 5, 2021 4:13 pm
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As I get older, Tally Ho gets weirder but still fun

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Tally Ho has been in my collection for a long, long time. The first GenCon after I realized that I really like board games, I came home with a lot of new games.

At that time, Mayfair was selling imported Kosmos games with English rules in black and white shoved in and I got a bunch of them. (I later learned that Rio Grande sold English-language editions LOL)

Once every five to ten years, I pull Tally Ho out. And I swear it is crazier every time I look at it. It’s an asymmetric conflict of bears and foxes versus hunters and lumberjacks with trees and fowl in the middle. And, man, is it unbalanced… from a certain viewpoint.

You take all the counters, flip them upside down and randomly fill the board. So any piece can be anywhere. (On your turn, you either flip over a counter or move a counter you can legally move)

And I have had games where the placement and order of reveals dramatically determined the outcome of the game. A bear walled in by trees? They won’t be munching any humans.

But a full game is two matches with each player getting to play both sides. (I’m pretty sure the humans have the edge) More than that, with all the counters being flipped triggering the endgame, the players control the tempo and timing of the game. You have to be the one who balances the game. (I feel like that a design concept you don’t see as often as you used. Wow, I feel like a cranky old geezer )

Well, Tally Ho was first published in the early 70s and design priorities have changed since then. When I first tried the game, I wondered if it was secretly a war game. Now I’d describe it as a mash of abstract and Ameritrash design priorities. The cartoonish artwork looks like it’s for a kids game but there’s depth to the gameplay, between risk management and careful play.

Literally hundreds of games later, I still haven’t played another game that’s really like Tally Ho. And, while not flawless, it has remained in our collection, which can’t be said for many, many games.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jun 25, 2021 4:01 pm
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I forgot that Times Square was more than just a place

Lowell Kempf
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First of all, I forgot that Times Square existed. Then, when I did remember that it was a real thing, I forgot that it was designed by Reiner Knizia.

The game is apparently based on a famous 1954 German film that I have never seen and I haven’t been able to find anything but the most vague summaries of. From what I can tell, it made a much bigger splash in Germany than the United States. I do get the impression that if you know the movie, all the elements click.

At any rate, it’s a card-driven tug of war with five distinct different types of pieces. (There are six pieces with two identical gray pieces) They all have their own set of rules and restrictions. Your goal is to drag either the green girl or green champagne bottle to your edge of the board.

Champagne Charlie is what I really remember from the game. You can move him as a basically a bonus move if you have more pieces on your side of the board, which is really just a track. He is a threat that keeps the game interesting.

But the game has been out of our collection for years. Times Square isn’t a bad game but I’d say that its sin is that its level of being interesting is greater than being good. With every piece having its own distinct set of rules, it’s literally a game of the exception being the rule.

What ultimately made it leave the game closet, though, is that it’s a casual two-player game and, even after a number of purges, we still have a lot of them. Times Square just never got played.

It does feel like an unusual Knizia design. One of his hallmarks is simple systems that unfold into complex decisions. Times Square feels like it has cluttered rule book resulting in a simple game.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jun 21, 2021 9:17 pm
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I taught myself Calico in my doctor’s waiting room

Lowell Kempf
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While I had known a while that there was a solitaire demo of Calico online, I didn’t get around to trying it out until I was waiting at the doctor’s office for my annual physical. No one will ask for me for a blurb about Calico but it would be ‘You can learn it in the waiting room’

Calico is a game about cats, which puts it right up my alley. It’s also a puzzly abstract themed around making a quilt for those cats. I’ve heard it said homespun Arcadian themes have become their own genre but I think that’s been the case since Agricola (and that’s been out for a while)

I really had no excuse not to have tried the game out earlier. The website is very accessible and the game mechanically simple enough that I was able to learn it while waiting for a nurse practitioner to call my name.

You have your own hexagonal grid. You have a hand of two hexagonal quilt tiles. On your turn, you place one in an empty spot. You then draw one of three market tiles to refill your hand and the left most market tile gets discarded. (Ticket to Ride strikes again!)

There are three ways to score points, at least in the demo. Groups of three or more like colors can earn a button. Specific cat tiles can be placed on specific combinations of patterns. And there are goal tiles on your board that have to be surrounded by specific combinations of colors and/or patterns.

I really enjoyed Calico, more than I honestly been expecting. A big part of what makes the game tick is the three separate ways of scoring points. Because unless you are both very careful and very lucky, they are going to conflict with each other and you are going to make choices and sacrifices. I also liked the market. That helped add choices to the game.

I’m continuing my moratorium on buying new games but Calico has rushed to near the top of the top of the list of games I’d buy. I know the complete game has more types of cats and goal tiles and scenarios. The demo entertained me but the full game sounds really good.

https://myautoma.github.io/games/calico/index.html


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jun 12, 2021 3:37 am
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